The Mystery Deepens
WE LIVE close to reality when gathered round a deathbed. Yet, death remains a frightening, even terrifying, experience to contemplate. Little wonder that conjecture and mystery abound each time death closes in on life. Life is short, and as Shakespeare observed, “Death will have his day.”
What, then, is physical death? That is the first question we must determine.
An Unacceptable Fact
According to the Encyclopædia Britannica, death is simply defined as “the absence of life.” Although man can accept that fish, animals, and birds die naturally, his own intelligence tells him that human death comes as an enemy, even as the Bible states.*
Of all the creatures on this earth, man alone is capable of contemplating his own death. He is also unique in burying his dead. Often, as the Encyclopædia Britannica explains, ritual burying of the dead “stems from an instinctive inability or refusal on the part of man to accept death as the definitive end of human life. Despite the horrifying evidence of the physical decomposition caused by death, the belief has persisted that something of the individual person continues to survive the experience of dying.”
As a result, customs accompanying death are often overlaid with age-old traditions and mysterious superstitions.
Customs and Beliefs
For example, many ancient tombs contain not just bones of the dead but evidence of food and drink, interred in the belief that the deceased had need of such things beyond the grave. Maps and eyes were painted on Egyptian wooden coffins to guide the departed. Tools and personal effects, such as jewelry, were also left on the assumption that the dead would be glad to have them in an afterlife.
Skeletons have been found on their side in a crouched position, akin to the fetal posture of a child in the womb, which some authorities have interpreted to indicate a belief in rebirth. The Greeks and the Romans believed that the dead needed to be ferried across the Styx, the principal river of the underworld. This service was performed by Charon, a demonic boatman. He was paid for his services by a coin placed in the mouth of the deceased, a practice that continues to this day in many parts of the world.
“It is clear that each major religion has beliefs about the process of dying, death itself and the afterlife,” says A Dictionary of Religious Education. True—and why? Because it is so unacceptable to contemplate the end of conscious existence. “No one believes in his own death,” asserted psychiatrist Sigmund Freud, and in our “unconscious [mind] every one of us is convinced of his own immortality.”
Such thinking has naturally led to the development of many popular beliefs. Consider some of the main ones.
Purgatory and Hell
If the dead are alive, they must be somewhere—but where? And here lies the problem, since those who die are neither all bad nor all good. With a basic sense of justice, man has traditionally segregated the departed, the good from the bad.
The rabbinic view, as printed in The Jewish Encyclopedia, reads as follows: “In the last judgment day there shall be three classes of souls: the righteous shall at once be written down for the life everlasting; the wicked, for Gehenna; but those whose virtues and sins counterbalance one another shall go down to Gehenna and float up and down until they rise purified.” Many will recognize in this last statement a description of purgatory.
Interestingly, the New Catholic Encyclopedia, giving an official assessment of the doctrine of purgatory, simply states: “In the final analysis, the [Roman] Catholic doctrine on purgatory is based on tradition, not Sacred Scripture.” This is not surprising, as the word does not appear in the Bible, and the idea is not taught there. But what of Gehenna, the destination of the wicked according to The Jewish Encyclopedia?
Gehenna is a Greek form drawn from the Hebrew geh hin·nomʹ, the Valley of Hinnom, situated to the southwest of Jerusalem. It was a place where children were in times past sacrificed to the god Molech and, states The Jewish Encyclopedia, “for this reason the valley was deemed to be accursed, and ‘Gehenna’ therefore soon became a figurative equivalent for ‘hell.’”
“Hell, according to many religions,” says The World Book Encyclopedia, “is a place or state inhabited by demons, where wicked people are punished after death.” This is a doctrine still actively preached by some churches of Christendom and by other religions. As a result, many people have long grown up with a real fear of going to hell.
“When I was a boy,” wrote English novelist Jerome K. Jerome in the year 1926, “a material Hell was still by most pious folks accepted as fact. The suffering caused to an imaginative child can hardly be exaggerated. It caused me to hate God, and later on, when my growing intelligence rejected the conception as an absurdity, to despise the religion that had taught it.”
Whatever your view on hell (see the accompanying box “Hell and Gehenna—The Difference” for more information), the happier destination is held out by many to be heaven or Nirvana.
Heaven and Nirvana
“Heaven is the place and the blessed condition of unending happiness in the Presence of God, and His holy angels and saints,” states The Catholic Religion—A Manual of Instruction for Members of the Anglican Church. It adds: “It consists also in an endless reunion with all we have loved below, who have died in grace, and in our being perfectly good and holy for evermore.”
Nirvana, on the other hand, reflects the Buddhist belief that a state of “perfect peace and blessedness” can be attained only when the “painful, continuous cycle of death and rebirth” finally ends. Either way, with heaven or Nirvana, religion presents us with some provision for termination of the sufferings of this life, followed by life in an idyllic world.
Do these conflicting teachings help us to answer our question, What happens when we die? or does the mystery deepen? How can we be sure that what we choose to believe is true? Is religion teaching us fact or fiction?
Our destiny after death will remain locked in mystery—unless we can answer the fundamental question that alone holds the key: What is the soul? This we must do next.
See Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, 1Co chapter 15, verse 26.
[Box on page 6]
Cryonics and Immortality?
Cryonic suspension is a technique that allows dead persons to be maintained at ultralow temperatures. The whole body is kept in a container filled with liquid nitrogen at -385°F. [-232° C.], or customers can choose to become “neuropatients,” which means that only the head is preserved. “I don’t believe in life after death in the religious sense,” says the president of the British firm advocating cryonics, “but I enjoy life and I think cessation of consciousness is a bad thing.” The idea behind the sales talk is that at some future time, science will be able to restore life, even cloning new bodies for the severed heads. This is one way, reports The Sunday Times of London, of “achieving immortality.”
[Box on page 7]
Hell and Gehenna—The Difference
The word “hellfire” is an English distortion of “Gehenna,” the name of the ancient refuse dump outside the city of Jerusalem, which term was used by Jesus as a symbol of everlasting destruction. (Matthew 10:28) What, then, of hell itself (rendered from the Hebrew “she’ohlʹ” and the Greek “haiʹdes”)? If it is a place of torment, would anybody want to go there? Hardly. Yet, the patriarch Job asked God to conceal him there. (Job 14:13) Jonah as good as went to the Bible hell when he was in the belly of the big fish, and there he prayed to God for deliverance. (Jonah 2:1, 2) The hell of the Bible is the common grave of mankind, where those who have died rest in God’s loving memory, awaiting a resurrection.—John 5:28, 29.
[Picture on page 5]
Eyes were painted on an ancient Egyptian coffin in the belief that ‘the soul of the deceased could thus peer out’
Courtesy of the British Museum, London
[Picture on page 7]
Present-day Valley of Hinnom, southwest of Jerusalem